London’s Royal Festival Hall harboured a bustling, full house. An excited audience sat facing the stage; a cosy, warmly lit lounge room, littered with instruments. Guitars, mandolin, banjo, accordion, fiddle, keyboard and drums surrounded a homely red couch, waiting in anticipation for an evening with Joan Baez.
It’s been more than 50 years since Baez came to light through her residency at Boston’s famed Club 47 and the Newport Folk Festival. Now 71 she stood before us, enviably elegant, steering through a two hour set of stories and songs tinged with nostalgia, calling gods and governments to question with an aching poignancy, as she has been doing these long years throughout a lengthy career as a musician and activist. Her opening line was ‘I believe in prophecy’ Steve Earle’s words from God is God. As the song, accompanied only by her guitar, filled the hall – I was surprised at how clear and strong her voice is; though it wavered as it warmed, she hit every note in a huge range throughout the entire evening. A voice like a strong, ringing bell behind a charmed smile.
After the reflective Stones In the Road and Farewell Angelina, the night gained pace when Baez was joined by her percussionist son, Gabriel Harris and talented multi-instrumentalist Dirk Powell. The trio bought jaunt and flair to both trad. ballads and modern tracks. A rousing Lily of The West and a stomping Stagger Lee, some Johnny Cash with stories of June and a jazzed up, bass-y House of the Rising Sun, Cohen’s Suzanne, Swing Low Sweet Chariot with Woodstock tales, Love Is Just A Four Letter Word, and amongst others, a tipped hat to the UK with Catch The Wind – all amongst smiles, stories and anecdotes of days gone by, to the wild appreciation of the audience, eliciting, “You’re supposed to be all stuffy and reserved, what happened?”. The trio seemed comfortable and relaxed, joking and laughing onstage; Joan, reclining on the sofa for a sultry boogie-woogie track and often turning to the unfortunate audience delegated to seats behind the stage, the only down side to the choice of venue which boasts admirable acoustics and lighting.
Baez dedicated a rousing version of Joe Hill to the Occupy Movement stating that it had been a long time since she’s seen a willingness from the young people to take such risks with only each other to count on. Though the highlight of the evening for me was God On Our Side which Joan admitted was her favourite political song, and is sadly as relevant today as it was in 1963 when she first sang it with Dylan at the Newport folk festival. Since introducing him to her audiences, Joan Baez has inextricably linked herself with the idea of Bob Dylan; She finished the set with Diamonds and Rust, dedicated to him and ringing with a poignant nostalgia.
I approached the concert with the concern that it may be ringing the 60’s & 70’s dry and was happily disproved. Every song was full of exuberance and a painful honesty. Baez is still a strong musical force, and is still fighting. The evening ended in true folk style, with the audience encouraged to bellow a long to The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down and Imagine: An exhilarating reminder of the strength of a room full of people singing. Joan Baez left us standing, with an unexpected second encore of Blowin’ in the Wind; after all these years, still wielding a weapon of a voice.